John Grant releases his fifth solo album, Boy From Michigan, today Bella Union in the UK/Europe and Partisan in the US. Produced by Cate Le Bon, the album is a triumph and is being hailed by critics and fans alike. Boy From Michigan is available to listen to / order here.
Somewhere in the last decade, John Grant established himself as one of the great musical chroniclers of the American Dream, angled mostly from its flipside. What if everything you were promised, if you worked hard, loved hard, played and prayed hard, it all turned to ash? Grant lays it all out for careful cross-examination in his most autobiographical work to date. In a decade of making records by himself, he has playfully experimented with mood, texture and sound. At one end of his musical rainbow, he is the battle-scarred piano-man, at the other, a robust electronic auteur. Boy from Michigan seamlessly marries both.
Boy from Michigan sets out its stall early in order to fan his lyrical deck wider. Grant knows America well enough to document it in microscopic, painterly detail. The brittle intensity of the early life experiences of a middle-aged man twist stealthily into a broad metaphor for the state of the nation. “I guess I’m just thinking about where I came from,” he notes, “and what I went into.”
With longtime friend Cate Le Bon in the production chair, Grant has maximized the emotional impact of the melodies, stripping the noise of vaudeville and mood-enhancing a fruitful, spare, strangely orchestrated new world for him to live in. A clarinet forms the bedrock of a song. There is a saxophone solo. The record swings between ambient and progressive, calm and livid.
“Cate and I are both very strong-willed people”, says Grant. “Making a record is hard on a good day. The mounting stress of the US election and the pandemic really started to get to us by late July and August last year. It was at times a very stressful process under the circumstances, but one which was also full of many incredible and joyful moments.”
With the frenetic backdrop to its incubation playing out in the distance, the narrative journey of Boy from Michigan opens with Grant returning to his artistic prettiest. It begins with three songs drawn from his pre-Denver life: the title song, The Rusty Bull and County Fair. “It’s my Michigan Trilogy,” he says. Each draws the listener in to a specific sense of place, before untangling its significance with a rich cast-list of local characters, often symbolizing the uncultivated faith of childhood.
Tracks four and five, Mike and Julie and The Cruise Room, are perhaps the most affecting of the record, plunging deep into Grant’s late teenage years in Denver. In the former, Grant is confronted by a friend who wants to be with him, a man he brick-walls by purposefully positioning a mutual female friend in between as he cannot yet face his own sexuality. In the latter, he revisits the untouched, faded grandeur of the Art Deco bar at Denver’s Oxford Hotel for one last night as a young man before trying his luck in Germany, to see if Europe is a better fit.
Cementing the mid-point of the record are a pair of skittish, scholarly dance tunes, Best in Me and Rhetorical Figure. The latter is built in the lineage of his nascent electropop darlings, Devo, suggesting a formative world in which brains are regarded as horny as bodies. Dropping the pace, Just So You Know is the most familiar, John Grant-ian of his songs on the record. It is meant as a song to comfort his nearest and dearest after he’s gone.
Childhood as a horror narrative returns on Dandy Star, observing the tiny Grant watching the Mia Farrow horror movie See No Evil on the old family TV set in which a blind girl arrives back at her Aunt and Uncle’s home after a date and, after sleeping through the night, awakens in the morning only to discover gradually that everyone has been murdered.
These nine songs are the tumescent prologue to his grand climax. The pure smut of Your Portfolio imagines the US economy rewritten as a throbbing libidinous cock. “It’s where we are now in The States,” he says. “We worship money and any pretence that there’s any worship of anything else going on – like a loving God, for example – is just pathetic. Character doesn’t matter. Intimacy doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters. Wealth is sexualised. It’s a poem in honor of money. The song sounds funny, but I think it’s probably one of the darkest and most serious on the record.”
In ‘The Only Baby’ he finally removes his razor blade from a pocket to cleanly slit the throat of Trump’s America, authoring a scathing epitaph to an era of acute national exposition. He positions the former president as the bastard child of the nation’s virgin mother: “Don’t look so glum/There’s no reason to be sad/Because that’s the only baby that bitch could ever have.” As a final coda, on Billy, he gets to the causation of all this, a prevalent culture of hyper-machismo, one which fashioned us all for failure.
In his own accidental, skewed manner, John Grant may just have nailed, if not the, then at least an American Dream. Bruised and scarred he may be, but the boy from Michigan is no weak-hearted fool.